N.Y. Measles Outbreak: Local rabbi condemns those who “hide behind religious exemptions”

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A measles outbreak in one New York county is renewing the debate over religious exemptions for vaccinations.

Rockland County has declared a state of emergency and implemented an unprecedented ban as it faces the worst measles outbreak in the nation this year. There have been 155 measles cases reported since October – a record for the county and the highest number of cases out of the six total outbreaks in the U.S. reported in 2019.

County Executive Ed Day announced on Tuesday that unvaccinated minors are banned from public places for the next 30 days, or until they receive the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The only exception is for children who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons, such as being immunocompromised.

The outbreak has largely been concentrated in the county’s Haredi Jewish communities, where resistance to vaccinations is stronger. 

The ban is the first of its kind in the country, but is consistent with New York State Executive Law § 24. It will be enforced retroactively, meaning parents will only be penalized if they are found to have allowed their unvaccinated child in a public place. “Public places” include schools, churches, stores, medical facilities, and restaurants.

“Well, it’s about time,” Rabbi Oren Steinitz of Congregation Kol Ami in West Elmira said.

Rabbi Steinitz harshly condemned parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, calling the action “disgusting behavior that’s putting everyone else at risk – their children and everyone else’s children.”

He believes people choose to “hide behind religious exemptions,” a practice he says is “dishonest” and “too easy.”

Rabbi Steinitz also affirmed that there is no basis for resistance to vaccinations in Jewish law or tradition. “There is nothing that even remotely hints that vaccinations should be discouraged,” he said. “Judaism generally favors saving lives and doing everything in your power to save lives.”

The rabbi argued that anti-vaccination beliefs are limited to a small sect of the Orthodox Jewish population, but the issue is giving all members of the Jewish community a bad rap.

“The name of Judaism is being defamed because of the actions of a small group of people, a handful of people,” Rabbi Steinitz said. “Most, if not the vast majority, of Jews vaccinate their children.”

He also acknowledged that the anti-vaccination movement is widespread, affecting a diverse range of communities.

“It’s all over the place,” Rabbi Steinitz said. “It’s this unholy alliance between fundamentalists and hipsters, to be honest.”

As for the ban on unvaccinated children entering public places, Rabbi Steinitz agreed with the move.

“I personally would be extremely uncomfortable with an unvaccinated child or person who would come here,” he said. “We have an older population here. I would not put anybody at risk just because somebody decided for some reason they’re too good to be vaccinated.”

Meanwhile, Rockland County Executive Ed Day said on Tuesday that many rabbis in his community are working to encourage vaccinations among Orthodox Jews. 

Fortunately, measles is currently not a local issue, according to health officials.

In an interview with 18 News, Chemung County Public Health Director, Peter Buzzetti, said “Right now, we’re not concerned about measles. We do not have any confirmed cases of measles at this point. Our vaccinations in Chemung County are typically good.”

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